Mercedes-Benz probably had only the slightest inkling of what they were kicking off when they launched the W201 190E back in 1982. Slotting in below the larger W123 four-door, it was Merc’s first compact executive saloon — yet it wasn’t a low-cost, barebones special. On the contrary, it debuted a new five-link suspension setup with anti-dive/anti-squat geometry, and it was even offered with airbags and ABS (anti-lock brakes) — virtually space-age tech back then.

The fact it was a genuine prestige saloon — rather than a tarted-up offering spun off an el-cheapo generic platform — cemented its place in the Benz line-up, and the W202 C-Class that replaced it (as part of Merc’s new naming nomenclature introduced in the Nineties) paved the way for further success. The C-Class has been Mercedes-Benz’s best-selling model for the past 10 years, even though the smaller and cheaper A-Class and B-Class now sit below it. To put it another way, every fifth Mercedes sold globally last year was a C-Class.

The C-Class’s popularity is no surprise given that the current W205 generation that debuted in 2014 is a polished, dynamically sharp package. That said, Audi has recently launched a new-gen A4, while BMW also has an all-new 3 Series waiting in the wings (expect an October reveal at the Paris motor show). No time for the Merc boffins to sit on their hands, then, and hence we have the facelifted/upgraded 2019 C-Class, which will carry the baton until a brand-new replacement arrives in the next two years.

Take a look at the accompanying pics. If you can spot the difference between the old and new C-Class without resorting to google images and a magnifying glass, I’ll buy you chai and samosas. The exterior changes (which I’ll get to shortly) are miniscule, but major work has gone on under the skin, with no less than 6,500 new components in the mix.

 

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The big changes are to the entry-level four-cylinder models, as these gain innovative new engines that add potency yet reduce fuel consumption and emissions. However, we’re focusing first on the ‘Hyacinth Red’ AMG C43 that’s pictured alongside (it lands here in September, priced from Dh249,180). Think of this as the sensible go-faster C-Class, as opposed to the thunderous, tarmac-ripping C63, which is a lot pricier and thirstier.

Rather than the C63’s bruising V8, the C43 makes do with a 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6, but bigger turbochargers in the 2019 model enable it to eke out a robust 385bhp (up from 362bhp in the oldie) and 520Nm (on tap from 2,500-5,000rpm) so it’s not exactly undernourished. Dispensing all this grunt is handled by a nine-speed auto (‘AMG Speedshift’ in Merc-speak) and a 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system that splits torque in a 31:69 ratio to front and rear axles. It’s clearly a rear-biased setup, but without the wheel-spinning, tail-happy cornering characteristics that would otherwise be the case in a rear-drive saloon with 520 Newtons of twist.

Merc quotes a 0-100kph split of 4.7sec and electronically governed top speed of 250 klicks, so only the most hardcore, V8-lovin’ leadfoots will feel the need to up the ante to the C63. The C43 doesn’t get air suspension (only steel springs here), but it does come with AMG Ride Control adaptive dampers and

AMG-specific kinematics and elastokinematics that tighten up the whole show.

So, what does it all feel like? In two words, fast and focused. The C43 isn’t anywhere near as raucous as its C63 sibling (it’s quieter than expected), but its real-world pace and dynamics aren’t too far removed from the V8 thumper. There’s bags of mid-range torque — handy for blasting past convoys of slow-moving Sunday drivers — and its off-the-mark acceleration is sufficient to give you a mild dose of neck strain (the C63 is only 0.6sec quicker to 100kph).

The C43 has a beefy footprint — there’s 225/40R19 rubber at the front and 255/35R19 out back, wrapped around AMG-specific, aero-optimised 19-inch rims — to complement its lower, stiffer suspension. Consequently, even a determined ragging across some twisty sections of road leading from Luxembourg towards Gonnesweiler (across the German border) fails to elicit too much in the way of chirping and squealing from the tyres.

There’s no doubting the C43’s pace, poise and balance, but if there’s one area where it’s marginally lacking, it’s in driver involvement. The car goes exactly where you point it, but it doesn’t stimulate the senses quite as much as hoped. The AMG-specific, speed-sensitive steering is weighty and accurate, but it could do with a tad more feedback. As it is, you don’t feel intimately connected to the car — more like an operator. The C43 is ruthlessly efficient, rather than brimming with passion.

 

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There’s flair inside, though, as new for the 2019 C-Class are optional digitised virtual dials, and the cluster can be configured various ways to display trip info, fuel consumption and so forth. They also light up in red in the C43 when you select Sport or Sport+ modes via the drive-mode selector on the centre console. In case you’re wondering why the C doesn’t get the elongated rectangular dash layout that feature in the current E- and S-Class, it’s because incorporating this would have entailed a wholesale (and costly) redesign of the dashboard architecture. That’ll have to wait until the next-gen C-Class.

The C43 also gets an optional high-res 10.25in centre screen for the satnav and infotainment, and this can be activated via the touchpad controller on the centre console… or you can simply tell the system what you want it to do and, all going well, Linguatronic voice control will do the rest. It’s a fairly intuitive system, and the new dash and centre console layout looks a treat.

Our test car is equipped with the optional AMG Performance seats, which feature added bolstering on the seat cushion and backrest. They’re hip-hugging and supportive (especially when you’re going like a bat out of hell across winding roads), but those with larger frames might find them slightly restrictive. The standard pews would be a better choice if this is the case.

I alluded earlier to the minor exterior tweaks for the 2019 model and, if you’re a particularly eagle-eyed anorak, you may have picked up on the lightly remodelled front and rear bumpers, new twin-blade grille, larger diffuser and twin round chromed tailpipes (in lieu of the old trapezoidal pipes).

 

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Funky looking Multibeam LED headlamps with Ultra Range high beam are optional, but even the standard C-Class comes with LED High Performance headlamps. The Multibeam lights (first seen in the S-Class) are particularly clever as you can leave the high beam permanently switched on. The reason you can do this is because the ‘intelligent’ technology partially switches off some of the 84 LEDs, masking out part of the beam so you don’t dazzle other road users.

Hopping out of the AMG C43, I then jump into a C300, which in 2019 guise scores a brand-new 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo motor with 255bhp and 370Nm, in this case channelled solely to the rear wheels. The lack of weighty all-wheel-drive hardware, plus the fact it has a significantly lighter engine, are tangible in the C300’s demeanour vis-à-vis the AMG blaster I’ve just stepped out of.

The big changes are to the entry-level four-cylinder models, as these gain innovative new engines that add potency yet reduce fuel consumption and emissions.

The C300 (priced from Dh193,705 when it lands in September) might not have the crushing acceleration, sonorous soundtrack or outright grip of the fat-tyred, firmly-sprung C43, but it’s easier to steer and quicker to change direction. The C300 is also more relaxing to drive as its softer suspension soaks up almost all irregularities in the tarmac, rather than transmitting them to your spine.

Compared to the C43, it’s a quieter, more refined package overall — as you’d expect. The standard seats are also comfier, unless you’re flinging the car around, in which case the added lateral support of the AMG buckets is welcome. The only thing I don’t warm to about the C300 is the so-called ‘Natural Grain Grey Oak Wood’ trim on the centre console as it doesn’t look particularly woody or upmarket. Of course, you don’t have to choose this as there are other alternatives on the menu.

The new C borrows all the driver-assistance systems rolled out in the current E-Class, and this means it can drive semi-autonomously in certain situations. To do this, it monitors the traffic via camera and radar systems that allow the car to see up to 500m ahead. The Active Distance Assist Distronic (as part of the Driver Assistance package) also lends a hand by using map information to predictively adjust speed when approaching bends, junctions and roundabouts. It’s not fool-proof though, so it still pays to stay alert and keep your hands on the wheel.

There wasn’t a whole lot wrong with the old C-Class. It was the undisputed No1 seller in the compact prestige saloon segment, so it’s not surprising the updated model looks little changed on the surface. That said, the raft of tweaks, fiddles and upgrades implemented across the 2019 range have made it an even more enticing proposition, and it should comfortably hold its own until an all-new replacement arrives in about two years. Job done… for now.